Snapchat is haemorrhaging UK users to rival Instagram for the first time in its eight-year history, according to the latest eMarketer data, a trend rejected by parent Snap.
The social media company has been losing users since late 2017 when it redesigned the platform, while its increasingly commericially minded business model and the introduction of more intrusive advertising formats are likely to have contributed to the decline in users.
Snapchat contested eMarketer's findings, arguing they were "at odds with our own internal figures". A spokesperson said that, while it believed some of its 2018 global decline was "in part from changes to the design in our application", it was generally "pleased with the trajectory of our audience in the UK".
However, according to eMarketer's latest UK social usage forecast, 14.5 million people in the UK will use Snapchat in 2019, down 2.3% compared with last year.
Looking further ahead, user figures are expected to decline through 2023, when they will fall to 14.1 million.
The latest figures mark a dramatic reassessment from eMarketer, which has cuts its predictions significantly since the third quarter of 2018, when it forecast 17 million users for Snapchat this year.
According to eMarketer forecasting analyst Showmik Podder, many of Snapchat's users "didn't like the way Stories and chats were mixed together in a confusing presentation". This change rolled out gradually from late 2017 into 2018.
"The backlash was so severe that Snapchat was forced to scale back some of the changes just a few months later," he added.
Snapchat did manage to add users in 2018 as it tweaked the new app design.
"In fact, it grew strongly in early 2018, but user growth waned near the end of the year as Snapchat faced increased competition from other apps," eMarketer said.
EMarketer expects Snapchat to lose users across all age brackets in 2019 – a trend that will be most pronounced among 12- to 17-year-olds (down 2.8%) and 25- to 34-year-olds (down 2.7%).
But Snapchat cited its own Snap Partner Summit, where it announced "we reach more 13-24-year-olds than Facebook or Instagram in the UK".
"Our next earnings call is scheduled for 23 April and we will share Q1 user and financial results," the spokesperson added.
Podder said that it is too early to tell how this will impact Snapchat's ad revenues, adding that "a declining number of younger users could make advertisers less inclined to spend on the platform if that same audience can be reached elsewhere".
In October 2018, Snapchat owner Snap said that global daily active users had fallen by two million, but insisted that revenue growth remained strong.
Nevertheless, what appears to be bad news for Snapchat is clearly good news for Facebook-owned Instagram. The latter is predicted to pick up Snapchat's defectors, with its UK user base set to grow 8% to 21 million in 2019. While Instagram's user base will slow to single-digit growth this year, it will remain positive into 2023, when it will reach 23.3 million.
"Many of the same features that have made Snapchat popular have been adopted by Instagram," Podder added. "This raises the question of whether former Snapchat users will ever return to the app."
Snapchat has introduced numerous changes to its platform, many of which are likely to have put users off. In October 2018, it ramped up its online TV proposition in the UK after snaring 17 media brands to launch content on its new Shows platform, which will include non-skippable ads.
The move marked a significant change to its advertising strategy, which had historically relied on skippable ads.